Ashes to Ashes

So much of our stuff is just smoke and mirrors.

Not far from where I live, dry trees and grass are burning an indiscriminate path through wilderness and civilization alike. It's been quite a summer already -- people here have gotten used to the concept of being evacuated. Everyone I know is thinking about what to take, should it come to that.

Almost everyone: Fifteen-year-old boys are less than panicked, as long as they know where their skateboards are. The handful of homeless people in this increasingly affluent area are justifiably smug. Walter, the guy who traditionally spends his summers beneath a picnic table on the shores of Bear Creek Lake, is there as always, drinking beer and yelling at hikers. Everything he needs fits in his rolling Playmate cooler.

I have chosen this moment to move into a new house, and my days are full of boxes. Before I can decide what to take out, I have to put everything back in. It's a good distraction: Reducing my life to an essential armful of stuff is one of those impossible, self-defining tasks I usually try very hard to ignore.

Mark Andresen

Most of the people around me, however, abandoned the luxury of avoidance long ago.

"Here's what I know," says Kristie McMullen, the woman who works behind the video counter and has been evacuated three times so far. "Make sure your documents are in order. I've heard of people who don't -- and they kind of disappear. I have the whole thing down to a science. I take my papers and my dogs. If I have time, I take my Gramma's china with the pink rose in the middle and the quilts people made for me. My littlest kid takes a few stuffed animals, my thirteen-year-old daughter takes her Precious Moments figurines. My fifteen-year-old son takes his clothes -- not even special clothes -- and he throws them all in a garbage bag and is happy."

"I don't know that any of it matters much," says Diana Miller, the pharmacist. "I'd take a whole lot of papers and picture albums, but what else? Why?"

"I put 1,600 wedding pictures on my hard drive," says Angie Miller, who works behind the meat counter. "I tell my mother-in-law to do that, but she's not organized, and she may be sorry."

Miller and her mother-in-law have evacuated to each other's houses several times -- giving them a total of six dogs and a lot of wedding pictures with which they can start a new life, although they haven't had to yet. Last weekend, in fact, Miller and her husband bought a $1,600 flat-screen TV. "Which I like," she says, "except that it doesn't matter and neither does any of the new furniture we bought for our new house."

Eric Tischner, the guy who hangs phone wire, seems young enough to belong to the jeans-and-skateboard camp. "Jeans, socks, boxers," he agrees. "I mean, I'd need them, right? Except I'm not near the fires."

Unless the local arsonist currently torching 285 passes by your block, I remind him.

This makes him think not just of his three guitars, but of his prized collection of great hockey-play-off games captured on videotape. "These are good, classic games, going back to 1989," he says proudly. "I'd have to have them. I know the outcome, but I watch them anyway."

"My concern is someone throwing a cigarette butt out the car window on their way past my house," says yoga teacher Kim Evezich. This makes her jumpy, and now that she mentions it, it makes me jumpy, too. "Tonight I heard a bunch of horses whinnying next door, where the people are out of town, and I freaked out -- what were they making that noise about? It turned out it was just a bunch of evacuated horses joining the stable for a while. But you always think they know something."

At the start of this dry spring, Evezich took a load of treasure to her mother's house in Littleton for safekeeping. "My silver flatware and some original Audubon prints and antique jewelry," she recalls. A few weeks later, she put the family photo albums inside the meat smoker, assuming that it would be fireproof, in its own unique way. Then she taught her twelve-year-old to drive the minivan down the mountain switchback that constitutes her driveway. "I figured I'd be driving the horse trailer, and I want her to follow me," she explains. "And that's it -- horses, dogs, kids. Everything else I can replace at Target."

On the sunny side of the valley, the neighbors have gotten organized enough to exchange house keys. They all know where to find everyone else's most precious belongings: recipes, souvenirs of an audience with the Pope, report cards, leashes, a great-grandmother's wedding ring, a father's rodeo belt buckle.

Stuff is either the most important thing in the world, or the least.

Shamed by my neighbors, I start filling a box with documents, all the time wondering if they'll really do me as much good, in the short run, as that half-a-really-excellent-turkey sandwich in the fridge. I don't really think about the long run at a time like this, unless it's a run long before I was born.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help